Skyline University Nigeria

Employee Motivation through Neuroscience

hese needs could also be wants or desires that are acquired through the influence of culture, society, lifestyle, etc. or generally innate. Motivation is one’s direction to behaviour, or what causes a person to want to repeat a behaviour, a set of force that acts behind the motives.

Motivation can be intrinsic, such as satisfaction and feelings of achievement; or extrinsic, such as rewards, punishment, and goal obtainment. Not all people are motivated by the same thing and over time their motivations might changes.


Many theories are proposed by various renowned author on motivation like ‘Theory X theory Y’ developed by Douglas McGregor, Maslow’s Need Hierarchy theory, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, Aldefer’s Existence, Relatedness, and Growth (ERG) Needs, are to name a few. The list is endless. All these theories talk about behaviour and behaviour management to increase motivation.

Brain and motivation

In most cases, people are talking about psychological factors responsible for motivation. But how does this psychology get triggered, does it have any relationship with physiology as well? The answer is, yes, psychology has defiantly something to do with our brain. The brain plays an important role in motivation. Because it gives a signal in the form of Neurotransmitters which triggers the desire in a person to do something. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers released from neurons so that they can communicate to neighbouring cells throughout your brain and body. While the exact number is not known, there are well over 100 neurotransmitters like Serotonin, etc.

Towards motivation, the dopamine system is primarily active. Dopamine determines how the brain processes reward and hence what is motivating to pursue. The neurotransmitter dopamine is found all over the brain. There is a system of brain regions that are important: one is the nucleus accumbens, another is the Striatum and the third is the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. They form a coherent system of reward and motivation within the brain. The system is an old and all-purpose one that probably developed to provide motivation to find food, and shelter and other survival needs. It developed to seek primary rewards but has been adapted to other things that people find rewarding such as an attractive face, chocolate and money.

The neuroscience journal Neuron publishes an article in which Mercè Correa explains that it was believed that dopamine-regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us. In fact, the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that, it actually encourages us to act. In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil.

How does it work

Within our brains, we have an emotionally sensitive switching station, called the amygdala, which lies deep within the limbic system. In the absence of high stress or fear, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC’s role then is to turn that information into long-term memory or process it through the cognitive and emotional control networks of the higher functions within our brain. That then allows us to either respond or to ignore it.

In a study at Vanderbilt University, scientists mapped the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers” and found that those willing to work hard for rewards had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and PFC, which are both linked to motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.

Now as we understood the importance of few neurotransmitters in motivation, let’s understand which factors trigger the release of these neurotransmitters. So that employees can feel positive and motivated. However, precautions have to be taken that these neurotransmitters to be activated with non-chemical things like training, rewards and punishment only. If we try to use the forceful activation through external chemicals then it may lead to the stage of addiction and other complications. David R. Benavides and his team in their study agreed that Neurobiological evidence supports the idea that addictive drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, and heroin act on brain systems underlying motivation for natural rewards, such as the mesolimbic dopamine system. Normally, these brain systems serve to guide us toward fitness-enhancing rewards (food, water, sex, etc.), but they can be co-opted by repeated use of drugs of abuse, causing addicts to excessively pursue drug rewards. Therefore, drugs can hijack brain systems underlying other motivations, causing the almost singular pursuit of drugs characteristic of addiction.

Training the brain

You can train your brain to increase your neurotransmitter levels, allowing yourself a time out to “thank yourself” for attaining small goals during the day, helps your brain generate a dopamine response. Positive workplace environments, where colleagues regularly praise each other as they work together, will have higher levels of dopamine, and therefore motivation, than people working in isolation. This knowledge is important, as dopamine levels – along with another neurotransmitter, serotonin – play a large part in the occurrence of depressive episodes.

Set Goals Your Brain Likes

Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine. But to get going you have to land those first few successes. The key to creating your own cycle of productivity is to set a grand vision and work your way there with a few, achievable goals that increase your likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.

The above are just examples given and we have a wide scope to do research and search more and exact causes which will help in employee motivation.


While working on the motivation of employee, organizations look only the behavioural aspects, however, there is a need to understand the reason for a particular behaviour. We can say that the recent advancement in neurosciences helps us to understand the neurotransmitters responsible for motivating the employees. Working on this organization and employees both can help themselves to remain motivated by using techniques like setting small goals, eating healthy diets, etc. to say a few. Maybe if we understand how the brain responds to reward and what motivates people to pursue it, even if monetary rewards weren’t changed, other forms of reward might be adopted and begin to have a greater impact on motivation and reward policy as part of a total reward package. A lot of research is needed in this area to correlate and explore the methods to increase the level and motivations of the neurotransmitters. However, looking towards the fast pace of development in sciences this seems to be very much possible in the next few years only.

1. David Salisbury, (2012) “Dopamine impacts your willingness to work”, at
2. Mehta M, 2013, “Why our brains like short term goals” at
3. David R. Benavides, Jennifer J. Quinn, Ping Zhong, Ammar H. Hawasli, Ralph J. DiLeone, Janice W. Kansy, Peter Olausson, Zhen Yan, Jane R. Taylor and James A. Bibb Journal of Neuroscience 21 November 2007, 27 (47) 12967-12976; DOI:
4. John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 2012; 76.
5. Ryan, Richard M.; Deci, Edward L. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25 (1): 54–67.
6. Jan Hills, (2017). “Neuroscience, motivation and reward” at
7. Ken Trass, (2016), “The brain and workplace motivation”, at
8. Dean Griffiths, (2016) “The Neuroscience of Motivation”, at

Dr. Irfan S. Inamdar is an Associate Professor in Management at Skyline University Nigeria. He has a PhD. in Business Management from Nagpur University, India.

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